Telecom group fooled by hoax virus warning

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 March, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 March, 1997, 12:00am

A British telecommunications trade group has drawn up an e-mail code of practice after it relayed a hoax message detailing an allegedly deadly 'vapourware' virus that could wipe all the data on a computer's hard disk.

Vapourware is a term given to software under development that is hyped by the publisher, even though it is not available in the market.

Those behind the hoax claimed to know about a non-existent virus and spread a warning about it, predicting doom and destruction for all who fail to take notice.

David Harrington, director-general of the Telecom Management Association in London, lent credibility to the existence of a 'penpal greetings' virus after he forwarded an apparently innocent e-mail warning.

The warning said it was 'received this morning from IBM, please share it with anyone that might access the Internet'.

Association spokesman Jonathan Morgan-Jones declined to explain where the message originated, but said steps had been taken to prevent another hoax being forwarded to other correspondents with the organisation's letterhead attached.

'All future warnings will be routed via our IT department for authentication,' Mr Morgan-Jones said.

Mr Harrington's message was forwarded last week to a number of Hong Kong e-mail subscribers.

Computer security and anti-virus expert Allan Dyer, of Yui Kee Computing in Hong Kong, said the penpal hoax was one of a number of bogus computer viruses.

'It's a hoax like the 'Good Times' hoax and David Harrington is not the first person to be fooled by it,' Mr Dyer said.

'There are quite a few of these hoaxes around at the moment.' Mr Dyer, who represents Finnish anti-virus researcher and security house F-PROT DataFellows in Southeast Asia, said the hoax message contained numerous inaccuracies.

'Current e-mail systems do not execute a message when you open it, so it is not possible for your system to be infected by opening a message,' Mr Dyer said.

'Opening an attachment to a message might result in infection, such as a Word document attachment to a message will usually cause Word to be started and the document loaded, executing the AutoOpen macro if one exists.' He said there were a couple of other suspicious points, notably that the warning from IBM was unattributed to a department or spokesman.

'In short, the whole message is a confusing mixture of technical misunderstandings and half-truths that panics people into perpetuating the hoax,' Mr Dyer said.

'I would recommend people check such warnings with a technical expert before passing them to everyone they know.' Data security experts say they have a difficult enough time tracking existing viruses rather than hoaxes and urban myths perpetuated by e-mail or contained in films such as last year's Independence Day.

WHAT THE PENPAL GREETINGS! WARNING SAID: 'If anyone receives mail entitled: PENPAL GREETINGS! please delete it WITHOUT reading it. This is a warning for all Internet users - there is a dangerous virus propogating across the Internet through an e-mail message entitled 'PENPAL GREETINGS!'.

DO NOT DOWNLOAD ANY MESSAGE ENTITLED 'PENPAL GREETINGS!' This message appears to be a friendly letter asking you if you are interested in a penpal, but by the time you read this letter, it is too late. The 'Trojan horse' virus will have already infected the boot sector of your hard drive, destroying all of the data present. It is a self-replicating virus, and once the message is read, it will AUTOMATICALLY forward itself to anyone whose e-mail address is present in YOUR mailbox! This virus will DESTROY your hard drive, and holds the potential to DESTROY the hard drive of anyone whose mail is in your inbox, and who's mail in their inbox, and so on. If this virus remains unchecked, it has the potntial to do a great deal of DAMAGE to computer networks worldwide!!!! . . . And pass this message along to all of your friends and relatives, and the other readers of the newsgroups and mailing lists which you are on, so that they are not hurt by this dangerous virus!!!!'